Tabloid Trash -- or Treasure?

By Tom Scocca
Sunday, May 10, 2009

Without the National Enquirer, Elizabeth Edwards never would have sat down with Oprah Winfrey to discuss her husband's infidelity and her new book about it. "It's not going to change my life in any way," Edwards said of the reports -- "tabloid" reports, as Winfrey called them -- suggesting that former vice presidential candidate John Edwards may have fathered a child out of wedlock.

As advance tidbits from the Oprah interview made their way through the media, the Enquirer was declaring from grocery store racks that Winfrey herself had "ONLY 3 YEARS TO LIVE!" Just below the screaming yellow "-VE!" of the headline, slender little white letters murmured the caveat, "Experts Predict"; inside, the paper explained that the imminent date was "based on [Winfrey's] history of yo-yo dieting" and her claims of thyroid problems, cross-calculated using estimates from two doctors who had never examined the star.

The reputable media don't traffic in that sort of tenuous speculation about people's lives. They also didn't traffic in the story of John Edwards and Rielle Hunter, until the Enquirer forced them to. This is why "tabloid journalism" is used as a put-down, and why tabloid journalism still exists: No one else does what it does, but in some situations, you need it.

When a person's image is a commodity -- as was the case with John Edwards, the millionaire of humble origins whose family life supposedly kept him grounded -- the ideas of privacy and good taste become part of the marketing effort. The tabloids, rude and prying, are able to break through such images to the truth behind them in ways the conventional media cannot.

Before it was an insult, "tabloid" was (and remains) a format: the cheaper, more portable challenger to the ponderous broadsheets of record. Now that challenge comes instead from the limitlessly cheap and portable Internet, and the once-big papers have trimmed their print editions to something not far from the disreputable tabloid size. The Senate commerce committee last week held hearings into the "future of journalism" -- will there be any room for the civic-minded, money-losing newspapers in the opinion-heavy, aggregation-minded, free-for-all of new media? If the "legacy media," as newspapers such as this one were called at that hearing, want to last longer than the Enquirer thinks Oprah will, perhaps they have something to learn from how the tabloids do business.

In the main lobby of The Washington Post hangs a list of journalistic principles expounded by the paper's late publisher Eugene Meyer. "As a disseminator of the news," states one of those principles, "the paper shall observe the decencies that are obligatory upon a private gentleman." It's hard to fault standards and practices that were vigorous enough to handle the Watergate story, but the rule doesn't offer much guidance about dealing with news about cads and their indecencies -- particularly when the indecencies are neither entirely private nor entirely public. Add in Meyer's admonition to tell the truth "as nearly as the truth can be ascertained," and the outlines of a loophole become even clearer: One way to stay out of the papers is to be especially squalid, and to lie about it.

"False, absolute nonsense," an Edwards spokesperson told the Enquirer at the beginning of the Edwards-affair affair in October 2007, while the candidate was still working the heartland on his way to a second-place finish, ahead of Hillary Clinton, in the Iowa caucuses. Against that blanket denial, the paper cited "a source close to the woman" and "one bombshell e-mail message" to support what it called a "shocking allegation -- if proven true."

Respectable news outlets prefer something a bit firmer than "if proven true." But as with the Oprah story, the Enquirer was showing its work -- if you didn't like the epistemology, you didn't have to believe anything just yet. Nine months later, when Enquirer reporters were chasing John Edwards up and down a Los Angeles hotel stairway in the middle of the night, the paper's anonymous sources started to seem a little more persuasive.

Non-tabloid journalists are supposed to avoid anonymous sources except in extenuating circumstances. Paying sources for information, another tabloid staple, is always unacceptable. The first rule is broken all the time; the second can be worked around, especially by TV producers looking for exclusives. But there's widespread agreement that the rules are correct in principle.

That doesn't mean that the tabloid approach is inherently unreliable. The Enquirer has argued that paid sources may even be more trustworthy than unpaid ones, because their reason for speaking to the media is open and straightforward. It was a paid source who supplied the Enquirer with a photograph of O.J. Simpson wearing his Bruno Magli shoes, the ones he'd insisted, during his murder trial, that he'd never owned.

Even journalists who resist (not unreasonably) the pay-for-play theory might admit that the distinction between anonymous sources and named ones is not as simple as respectable papers' standards make it out to be. The idea that on-the-record quotes are an indicator of truth is a charming fiction -- and a hilarious one for those of us who have ever had to cover the journalism industry itself.

Take, for example, the decline of George Steinbrenner. The supposedly ferocious New York newspapers spent months, if not years, printing quotes from the boss's publicist as though they had been relayed from the aging Yankee owner himself; when a magazine reporter named Franz Lidz, writing for Conde NastPortfolio, described finding an incoherent Steinbrenner at home in his pajamas in the middle of the day, it was seen as bad manners. But it was only after the revelation that Steinbrenner's sons began speaking publicly as, effectively, the team's new owners.

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